Achievement Gap

Let’s Get Real: The Belief Gap Is Alive and Well, Peter Greene

It’s reassuring to know that Peter Greene, our pal over at Curmudgucation, at least believes this one fact about the Belief Gap to be absolutely, undeniably true:
To teach students, you must believe that they can learn. The degree to which you believe in their power and potential has a huge effect on what those students will actually achieve.
That’s something, I guess—an admission that teachers’ beliefs can have a “huge effect” on student achievement. It was far more than Greene was willing to admit in his spirited assault on my colleague Chris Stewart, whose post about George Hall Elementary (an all-black, low-income school where every student was proficient) triggered an all-out Twitter skirmish this past weekend. After that promising admission, alas, Greene’s post skids off the rails in a number of alarming ways. It’s easy enough to dismiss his clever caveat that he doesn’t know of a “single competent teacher” who denies the power of belief. That qualifier sure buys Greene a lot of wiggle room, doesn’t it? Because he knows and I’ve seen a fair number of not-quite-competent teachers who never believed or have stopped believing in the students they are teaching—and they sure don’t see themselves as having “a huge effect” on their students’ achievement, no way, no how. So, Mr. Greene, what shall we do with those teachers “whose daily failure to believe in their students is the surest sign that they should get out of the teaching biz?” Wait for them to have that epiphany on their own and walk away from their pensions? Hope their principals are paying attention and figure out how to counsel them out of the classroom and into a less soul-destroying role? Pray they don’t transfer to a lower-performing school, where the stakes are even higher? Whatever we choose, let’s not pretend that those teachers are ever going to get fired for their “belief deficits”—not at traditional schools, and not if they are tenured. A “daily failure to believe” might get a teacher dismissed at a charter school, but it’s not worth even considering this given your assertion that “charters have nothing to teach public schools…about success and believing in students.” Because the charters that succeed (across multiple measures, not just on tests) in the toughest neighborhoods with black and brown children who live in poverty—well, they must be gaming the system, right? Creaming just those highly motivated, exceptionally behaved, high-performing black and brown children and culling those who don’t fit that Rainbow Coalition Lake Woebegone model? Can we entertain for just a second that there might be something special happening in successful urban charters—and successful traditional schools serving black and brown children in high-poverty neighborhoods—that can’t be dismissed as creaming, cheating, magical or miraculous? Is it possible that children in successful schools are not being rescued from “other problem children” but rather by truly competent teachers who fully expect they will learn, behave and thrive? And finally, Mr. Greene, spare me the glib comparisons to well-resourced suburban schools. My African-American daughter attends one of those schools, in a diverse district that spends $19,000 per pupil—$7,000 more than the state average. The average teacher there makes more than $107,000 a year, and more than 90 percent return year after year. So yes, Mr. Greene, our “education nuts and bolts” are pretty much silver-plated here in suburbia—but we still haven’t closed the discipline gap, the teacher quality gap, the curriculum tracking gap or the belief gap for many of the black and brown students who attend our high school. All those resources have not landed us a teaching force that understands, as you would say, “the world, life, background and culture” of our student body—82 percent of those exceptionally well-paid teachers are white, at a school where 43 percent are black, Latino or biracial. I know why my daughter is sitting in all-white AP calculus and AP physics classes. It’s so easy to believe in a smart black girl with a white mom and two professional parents. But not so easy to see the potential in that smart black boy with a single mom, a free-and-reduced-lunch form and a lackluster elementary transcript from a nearby Chicago school—those “odds and ends” behind which his potential hides, as you would say, Mr. Greene. Don’t throw up your hands and tell me belief isn’t enough. Maybe more of those boys would be sitting next to my daughter in calculus with more pushing, more believing. It’s a fine place to start.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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